Obama Nixes Netanyahu Meeting

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -

President Barack Obama will not meet Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu when the latter visits Washington in March to address the U.S. Congress, the White House said on Thursday, a decision that could further escalate tensions between the two leaders.

Bernadette Meehan, spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, said the reason Obama was withholding an invitation for Oval Office talks with Netanyahu..

“As a matter of long-standing practice and principle, we do not see heads of state or candidates in close proximity to their elections, so as to avoid the appearance of influencing a democratic election in a foreign country,” White House spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said in a statement. “Accordingly, the President will not be meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu because of the proximity to the Israeli election, which is just two weeks after his planned address to the U.S. Congress.”

Netanyahu announced earlier on Thursday that he would address Congress in a March visit likely to drive home differences with the Obama administration over Iran nuclear diplomacy. The White House had said the invitation, which was issued by Republican lawmakers without consulting Obama, was a breach of diplomatic protocol.

Meanwhile, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said on Thursday that Republican congressional leaders also did not consult him on inviting Netanyahu, though he said he would welcome the speech.

“I wasn’t consulted,” Reid told reporters in his first public appearance since suffering an eye injury in an exercise accident early this month.

“I have a good relationship with Netanyahu,” Reid said. “He called me as a matter of fact about my injury, which I appreciated. But you know, he’s a leader of a country, he’s going to come give a speech to a joint session of Congress. We’ll listen to what he has to say.”

Netanyahu will also speak at an AIPAC conference during the trip.